WINGING IT: OUR SMALL SCREEN DEBUT

Never a dull moment over here. A few weeks ago I had the exciting opportunity to take positive training on TV!

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Being that my full time job is in marketing, I’ve been on TV plugging fundraising events a handful of times (the first time I hung out with Johnnie Cash was when I took her on the news to promote our annual gala!). This time was different though – I secured the gig myself on behalf of Dog Latin and decided the content for the five minute segment. I pitched a “Clicker Training 101” angle and I was so excited to use this opportunity to spread positive training to the masses.

After I got confirmation that we had the segment, I realized I didn’t have a dog to come with me… oops. Minor detail, right? Luckily Dog Latin had just started working with this a-maz-ing client, a six-month old golden retriever named Scarlett. Despite being a young puppy, Scarlett was the absolutely perfect dog to bring with me to show off what clicker training can do. Her owner has been teaching her different manners, behaviors and tricks using the clicker since she was just eight weeks old! Not only does Scarlett have a large repertoire of behaviors, but her focus is unbeatable – especially for her age.

To prepare for our taping, I took Scarlett out on the town to work around distractions. As I’m sure you know, your dog’s ability to respond to cues out in the “real world” is a whole different ballgame than in your living room! The last thing I wanted was for her to see the studio, the cameras and all the people and freak out or be unable to work. So we went to PetSmart and to outdoor town squares and I did my best to create challenging environments for focusing – and Scarlett rocked it each time. We went into our TV debut with a bangin’ reinforcement history.

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We were appearing on The Pet Show with Dr. Katy. I admire Dr. Katy because she’s so successful in what she does – helping the public with their pets – and she has a blast doing it. She also doesn’t compromise who she is just because she’s in the public eye. Her twitter handle reads, “Veterinarian, Mom, Writer, Rabid LSU Fan. Snarky stiletto loving country girl rockin’ the big city.” Love it, girl – you do you!

Scarlett and I showed up to the studio armed with roughly one zillion hot dogs and pieces of cheddar cheese. I knew my reinforcer had to be a goooood one if I was going to keep her attention over the crazy sights and sounds of the news station. I was so relieved when she still had her sparkly, perfectly attentive face on at the studio.

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I was a little nervous, but once the cameras started rolling all of a sudden it became easy. As I settled in and started talking about training, I immediately relaxed. I had plenty to talk about – from switching to functional rewards, to how to get behaviors we like, to showing off Scarlett’s tricks – the five minute segment flew by. Scarlett did unbelievably well, and Dr. Katy was a gracious host.

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So, like I said, never a dull moment! I am so beyond thankful for this opportunity and the many lessons learned from the experience. I look forward to making next time (because there will be a next time!) even better.

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Technology wins again and I can’t figure out how to embed the video, so to watch the clip you have to head to the website. We start at about 8:10!


BREAKING NEWS: YOUR DOG’S FOOD IS NOT MADE WITH A SUBSTANCE FROM MARS

First of all, I’d like to give a huge THANK YOU for the overwhelming support you all gave me after last week’s relaunch of the site. I’m so excited that you’re excited! Your encouragement and enthusiasm made all the work I put into it way worth while.

Now, let’s talk about food.

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Hi, I am a dog trainer who uses food in training – and I absolutely love it. I train using primarily positive reinforcement. What this means is that I add something good to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. If I add something and it does not increase the behavior, it’s not doing the job. More importantly, it’s the learner who decides what is reinforcing and what isn’t. Just because you want Fluffy to enjoy pets does not mean Fluffy will enjoy pets.

The thing about food is that it is a primary reinforcer, meaning animals are hard wired to like it and want it. Most of the time, food is good enough to make a behavior happen again (depending on the difficulty of the behavior and the value of the food, but that’s for an entirely different post). Toys, praise, etc. are not always a good enough reinforcer, at least in the beginning, to increase a behavior. It’s like the equivalent of giving you a glass of lemonade to mow the lawn, versus giving you $20 to mow the lawn. Which is more motivating? (Trick question: it’s actually your spouse’s nagging.)

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As much as we would love our dogs to work with us “just because they want to,” that is not the case. They don’t want the glass of lemonade. Well, some do. But most don’t. We need to pay them and make it worth it for them. There are times when toys or praise just won’t cut it with our dogs, especially for tough behaviors like not going bat s*%t crazy when the doorbell rings. Using food in training allows us to mark and reward behaviors we like so that our dogs begin to do them more often. Stay calm to earn a “good boy!” from my human? No thanks. Stay calm for some juicy hot dogs? Now you’re talking!

I totally understand the concerns people have about using food to train their dog. The three gripes I hear most often are 1) I don’t want a dog who will only work if I have food 2) I don’t want my dog to get fat and 3) I don’t want my dog to think he now deserves my people food. Here’s the shocking part to a lot of people: trainers who use food don’t want any of those things either!

If you use food correctly, you can avoid all of those issues. Seriously! 1) Don’t go to your treat stash until after your dog has completed the behavior. As in, don’t stick the treat in front of Fluffy’s face and then give the cue. Give the cue, then treat. This makes it a reward, not a bribe. 2) I’m a big fan of shifting calories away from the food bowl. This is a win-win because your dog is working for his meals and therefore not taking in a ton of extra calories, and he’s getting extra mental stimulation! Which we know is super important. Lastly, 3) People food is only “people food” if it comes from the dinner table. Have you checked out the ingredients labels on your dog food bag? It (hopefully, ha) consists of what we consider “people food” – not a foreign substance from a faraway planet. Your dog will not translate getting cheese as treats to automatically deserving a bite of your grilled cheese sandwich. (But then again if he does think that, just teach him an awesome “place” behavior while you eat dinner and maybe he can get a bite or two!?)

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Do I fade the food eventually? For many behaviors, yes. Or I at least move to a more variable rate of reinforcement with treats while transitioning to functional rewards like getting the leash put on before a walk or tossing the toy. But for some behaviors, like a potentially life-saving recall or serious behavior modification, I usually don’t. The strategies and theories behind how long and how often we use food are a bit more complex and for another post.

Now, of course, like with everything else in the dog world, there are exceptions. There are dogs who will bend over backwards for their human’s giggle or for the toss of a ball. For those dogs, those functional rewards are more motivating and reinforcing. But most dogs need that food when you’re teaching them. I’m writing this because I had a really funny/borderline mortifying experience when I did a taping for a local news show the other day (which deserves its own post) and I wanted to address the whole “treats in training” debacle before I write about that experience. Because I don’t know about you, but I’m not working for just hugs, kisses or lemonade, no siree, Bob – and I wouldn’t expect my dogs to either.

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“I’m Scared” – Working With Fearful Dogs

I have encountered many shy and fearful dogs during my time working in shelters. After learning more about canine body language and how dogs communicate, I have picked up on some dos and don’ts for working with shy, fearful and timid dogs. This knowledge proved very useful this past week when I dog-sat through Dog Latin Dog Training’s Staycation program for a nine month old Havanese puppy named Lucy who is quite fearful of new people.

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It is important to recognize when a dog is displaying fearful body language. The canine signs of fear can often overlap with those of general stress or discomfort, including: tail tucked, ears back/flattened, lip licking, whale eye, panting, yawning, darting and moving frantically, growling, avoiding eye contact or only making it very briefly, staying low to the ground, trembling, hiding and more. Dr. Sophia Yin created this fabulous illustration on fearful body language:

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It is also important to remember that fear can be a driving force behind aggression, and if you notice a dog acting fearful or nervous, do not push the dog because escalated stress can send it over the edge and is often when bites occur. It is also very important that we do not punish the warning signs associated with bites (i.e. signs of fear) – especially, and I beg this of you, not the growl. That is like getting rid of your smoke detector! We want our dogs to tell us when they are uncomfortable. Then we can address the root of the problem, not just suppress the symptoms to be left with an uncomfortable dog who will now bite “out of nowhere.”

Fearful dogs are not always a product of abuse. Most likely, they’re a product of poor socialization. There is a key socialization period in a dog’s life up until twelve to sixteen weeks old, and often if the dog isn’t introduced in a positive way (!!) to enough novel stimuli during that time, they can be fearful of new experiences later in life. In extreme cases like puppy mills or hoarding situation (like Poor Otis) when dogs see nothing more than basically just a box for their first few months (or longer) of life, dogs can have almost crippling fear of new objects, places and/or people. It’s really quite sad. Some dogs can also just have a genetic predisposition to being more shy or timid.

Rehabilitating and working with a fearful dog can be quite a feat. To us as humans, the fears might seem irrational: Really, you don’t like walking through doorways or down stairs? Really, you think your shiny food bowl is something to worry about? Really, you’re scared of my friend’s dad who’s trying to be nice to you? But just because we can’t wrap our heads around it doesn’t mean we can wish away their fearful behavior. This is where some of that stuff you learned in psychology class as a kid (and that many dog trainers use every day) comes in: classical counter conditioning and desensitization.  Basically counter conditioning means you create positive associations with something your dog previously thought was scary. Desensitizing is just what it sounds like: getting your dog used to frightening things (using counter conditioning) at an intensity that does not scare them, and then slowly working up from there.

Of course it is often more complex than this, but that’s the basic idea of some concepts to remember when working with fearful dogs. Another imperative rule I’ve learned is that a relationship needs to be built on the dog’s own terms. You can use food to win them over, but toss it to them instead of asking them to take it from your hand. This alleviates pressure on the dog and prevents a forced relationship turning bad, like Love & a Six-Foot Leash writes about on their own blog. Having a dog come up to you on their own terms, asking for attention and human contact, will build a much deeper, stronger trust.

This is what I did with Lucy when I stayed with her last week. She spent most of the first three days in her crate just staring at me (she actually didn’t have a problem with eye contact like many fearful dogs do). I went about my business, completely ignoring her – except every once in a while when I walked past her crate I would drop a treat. I was careful not to go into her crate as to not invade her secure hiding spot, but I dropped it just outside where she still felt comfortable snatching it. When she got a bit more brave and would come out to investigate, I would toss her a treat and when she went up to eat it, I would walk away from her – further reinforcing the notion that I bring yummy things but will not pressure you into getting close to me.

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By the end of the week, Lucy would follow me around, but I still could not touch her. I am confident that had I spent a few additional days with her, she would have warmed up to me the same way she has her owner. I am still happy with her progress with me, and that I even got a bit of a tail wag upon my return home to her from work. I can only imagine what worries were going through her mind, so I was happy to show her that I would not force her to do anything if she was unsure about it. She seemed to very much appreciate that.

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While much of this post is learned from reading books, attending workshops and seminars, and reflecting on my own personal experiences, I encourage you to head to the experts for more information. Patricia McConnell has a fabulous book called The Cautious Canine – How to Help Dogs Conquer Their Fear. In the MD/DC/VA area, Your Dog’s Friend offers exceptional classes for fearful dogs, including Confidence Building, Fearful Dog Class and TTouch Methods to Calm Your Dog. Also, one of the best web resources I have found is a site called Fearfuldogs.com – it covers more topics that I can even think of on the subject. The ASPCA also has quite the collection of great articles about fearful dogs. Whole Dog Journal outlines some exercises you can do with your fearful dog to build his confidence. There is a lot out there to help these poor little guys be a bit happier in our human world!


My Journey to Becoming a Dog Trainer: Part 2

As I dove into learning about dogs, I simultaneously learned about the culture of dog training. I learned that there are people out there who know so, so much and are a wealth of great knowledge because they’ve gone to school or they have certifications (yes, in my opinion you need more than just “experience”), and I learned that there are people out there who should not be working with the dogs that they do (nor getting paid the buckets of money that some do!). It’s an unregulated industry. Anyone can give themselves the title of dog trainer, or, even worse, a behaviorist. No one will call you on it, especially if you make it sound like you know what you’re talking about (or, in many cases, you truly think you do know what you’re talking about). I’ve heard so many scary and heartbreaking stories about people who try to work with dogs and behavioral issues that are outside of their knowledge base, and the stories often do not end well.

My point for bringing this up is that I want to be one of the people who knows what they’re talking about, who has education and credentials to back it up, and who knows when they’re at their capacity to help, as well as what to do when they do reach that limit. What this means is that I am going to start small. I am going to start by learning. A lot. As much as I can. Then practice. A lot. As much as I can. Then get a certification. As many as I can.  Then I’m going to learn some more.

Virgil Ocampo Photography

Virgil Ocampo Photography

In terms of learning and practicing, I’ve gotten very lucky. The shelter trainer I told you about on Tuesday, Beth Mullen of Dog Latin Dog Training, has sort of taken me under her wing. She seems just as excited as I am about my career in dog training. The amount that she knows about dog behavior and how to communicate with dogs astounds me every time I watch her work. I began helping her out a few months ago, and have officially signed on as a trainer now. Currently I am teaching puppy classes and helping with basic manners clients – two things I feel very comfortable dealing with.

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Because I’m not okay with just comfort level to back up my abilities, I enrolled in the Karen Pryor Academy Puppy Start Right class. I absolutely loved it! The course went over everything from the way a dog is built to how dogs learn to their developmental stages to how to manage puppy behavior. It was a great course (though I was actually pretty happy with the fact that lots of it was review!), and now I have more to back up my experience when I talk to puppy parents. Also, let’s take a moment to point out the fact that my job is to hang out with puppies. Life is hard.

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Speaking of puppies – did you know a dog’s brain at 8 weeks old has the same learning capacity as that of an adult dog? Just a shorter attention span. You can teach puppies SO MUCH!

So that’s basically where things are right now. I have been blessed with the opportunity to join Dog Latin Dog Training to learn more and practice my skills, and will hopefully one day get my Certified Professional Dog Trainer – Knowledge Assessed title (REMEMBER: being a member of an association is not the same as having a certification!). I’m not sure how far I’ll go into the “difficult cases” category during my long term career – or if I’ll ever even go there at all. I just know that right now I love teaching people how to better understand their dogs, and I can’t wait to improve my ability to do that!

Newly permanent additions to my "can't go anywhere without it" collection: treat pouch, hot dogs & string cheese, clicker, six-foot leash with knots in it, and front-clip harness.

Newly permanent additions to my “can’t go anywhere without it” collection: treat pouch, delicious treats, clicker, six-foot leash with knots in it, and front-clip harness.


Walking Frankie’s Walk

We headed out to the AWLA Pit Crew training walk Sunday morning and had a blast! Frankie, like most of the dogs in the group, is working on his excitability around other dogs. He is not reactive, but if you get too close to another dog he will enthusiastically try to go say hi. . . yeah, not the politest. Honestly though I was expecting a little bit more of a show from him. He was a dream! You can tell that the shelter staff and volunteers have done a lot of work with him because he is attentive and will refocus his attention easily.

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Frankie is a big dog, so it’s pretty imperative that he has at least decent leash manners. While a group walk isn’t the place to exactly teach new skills, I used it as an opportunity to reinforce Frankie for walking nicely. Any time he would orient himself towards me and therefore have a very loose leash, I marked the behavior and rewarded him. I wanted to make myself more fun than the distractions around him that cause him to pull. Between the helpful gear (front clip harness) and the rewards, he did great! You know you had a successful walk when your arms are NOT tired after walking a 75 pound dog for an hour.

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Frankie and I enjoyed walking with the group and catching up with our good friends Kim (human) & Nicky (dog). Frankie and Nicky took an extra lap together after the group dispersed. Nicky liked Frankie initially until he used his all time worst pick up line on her (straight paw to the head) and she decided she’d rather play hard to get. Since he’s a gentleman he let her have her space and the two of them enjoyed getting to know each other from a distance. What a fun morning to wrap up our time together!

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If you’re in the DC area and you’re interested in adopting Frankie, email me at peacelovefoster@gmail.com.


Johnnie’s Jumping: Training the Humans

It’s been three weeks since Johnnie’s come into our home. She has improved on a remarkable amount of behaviors, but still has a ways to go in one category in particular: jumping up on people during greetings.

It is not uncommon for dogs that are easily excitable and/or love people to have a problem with jumping up. Johnnie’s excitement often gets the best of her and she springs her dainty little paws onto your belly in an attempt to show you just how happy she is to see you! While she’s improved significantly over the past three weeks with just management and some redirecting techniques, five months of having the behavior reinforced at the shelter is proving difficult to undo. Our biggest problem? Inconsistent reinforcement.

It’s sort of like those “My dog is friendly!”s you meet out on walks with your reactive dog: when Johnnie meets a new person and before I get a chance to say anything like, “Can you please wait, I’d like to get her to sit first” they’ve ran up to her and she’s already jumped up on them. Her new friend can then be found coo-ing at her, saying, “It’s okay, my dogs do it all the time. She’s sooo cute!” (similar to the below photo, except probably with more bouncing).  This is all fine and dandy, except that now Johnnie has gotten significant attention for jumping up.

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There are two issues here, both with one thing in common: it’s the humans who need training. I need to figure out a way to let Johnnie meet new people without practicing her bad behavior of jumping, which means stepping in before she gets the opportunity to jump on them, but without making it seem like she’s not friendly. This is something I will need to get creative with and practice, because I’m not always very direct with people I don’t know – but I need to be an advocate for my dog! The second thing is getting greeters to understand that if she does jump up, don’t reinforce it. This is hard for people to wrap their head around, like I stated above. So many people don’t have a problem with it, especially since she’s so little and adorable, but it leads to an insane amount of inconsistency in her training, making it very difficult to break her of the habit.

So now that J Cash has had three weeks to settle in, it’s time for a four-on-the-floor boot camp to help her with her urge to jump. I am going to try my best to teach her an alternative to bouncing her little front paws off the ground when she meets new people – hopefully finding a way to make it her idea to stay calm during greetings instead of making it something she’s forced into, which might not be as reliable of a long-term solution. I will keep you all updated about how it goes, with the end goal for introductions being something like the below photo.  Stay tuned!

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To adopt your very own Johnnie Cash, a dog that you’ll have a lot of fun training together with, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.


Helping Johnnie Decide to Be a Good Dog

The way animals learned is explained by science, based on how our brains works, and Johnnie is no different. We use three tools – management, positive reinforcement and negative punishment – to help Johnnie Cash be the best dog she can be.

When Johnnie does a behavior we like, we reward her. We often use a clicker to mark the desired behavior, followed with a treat. Her reward can also be attention, like only being acknowledged or petted when she is calm and not jumping up on you.  I also use toys as a reward. When we play fetch, I’ll only throw her ball or toy after she’s sat nicely waiting for it and not tried to grab it out of my hands. This teaches her that she’ll only get her toy if she sits politely, which translates into impulse control as well. Rewarding desired behaviors is our effort to show Johnnie what we DO want from her, instead of just trying to show her what we don’t want without offering her an alternative option.

Consider this scenario, common to many of us dog owners: guests coming over to your home. Think of all the things you don’t want your dog to do: jump up, bark, run around, etc. – there are so many behaviors you can come up with, right? Now think about what you do want your dog to do: sit or lie nicely as people come in the door. Much easier to focus on the one behavior you want than the dozens you don’t want, right? So teach that behavior! Set your dog up for success by showing them what you want them to do, not by making them guess what you don’t want.

Negative punishment is a part of the four quadrants of learning, and it means that you take something good away (negative) to decrease the likelihood of a behavior (punishment). When Johnnie becomes mouthy during play, we stop the game. She learns that being mouthy = fun game ending. When we ask Johnnie to sit and wait for her dinner, every time her butt comes off the ground as the food bowl lowers the ground, we pick the bowl back up again. Johnnie quickly learns that moving towards the bowl = bowl (food) going away.

It is remarkable how quickly these basic principles can help a dog figure out what we want from them WITHOUT the use of harsh corrections like yelling, using a spray bottle, leash jerks, etc (these fall under the category of ‘positive punishment’ – adding something undesirable to decrease a behavior). Johnnie is a sensitive dog and, like many dogs, would deteriorate under aversive correction methods. There’s the chance she would form bad associations with whatever is present at the time of the correction, which could create worse problems for the future. Operating under the “do this, or else” mentality of aversive corrections has the possibility to make her shut down and stop being her happy, fun self – all in an attempt to avoid the corrections. Plus, these punishments often only address the symptoms of an issue, not the root of the problem. Often times the anxiety, fear or discomfort is still there, despite the lack of exhibited behavior, and it will likely resurface in a worse way down the road.

I would love to elaborate on the negative effects of aversive punishment methods, but I’ll leave that to the experts. Here is a fabulous post by Love and a Six-Foot Leash about why intimidation tactics can be harmful to your relationship with your dog.  I also recommending checking out Jasmine’s House’s take on why you should address fear or reactivity issues with your dog in a positive way.  Lastly, Your Dog’s Friend has some really great resources about positive versus “traditional” training.

In just two weeks with us, Johnnie has, for the most part, picked up on a bunch of house rules. For example: self-control during play time, waiting to go out the door until released, waiting for her food bowl, not jumping on us when we come home, not getting on the furniture, walking calmly past other dogs and strangers, and more.  This was all done through rewarding the behavior we wanted and teaching alternatives to the behaviors we didn’t want. This has made learning fun for Johnnie and she trusts us. She thinks, “What can I do next that will get me a treat!?” That usually translates into a whole lot of sitting and staring at me, which is fine – especially when we’re out and about!  It comes down to the fact that she makes the decision to perform desired behaviors because she’s realized the rewards make it worth it.

Here is Johnnie sleeping on her bed while we eat dinner. We achieved this by ignoring her when she tried to beg, and calmly throwing kibbles to her when she made the decision to head to her bed. She learned that she was more likely to get food when she was on her bed. We're lucky with her because she's already got an affinity for her bed - some dogs will need to learn a "go to bed" cue or will need a kong to keep them occupied while on their bed.

Here is Johnnie sleeping on her bed while we eat dinner. We achieved this by ignoring her when she tried to beg, and calmly throwing kibbles to her when she made the decision to head to her bed. She learned that she was more likely to get food when she was on her bed, NOT when she was staring at us eating. We’re lucky with her because she’s already got an affinity for her bed – some dogs will need to learn a “go to bed” cue or will need a stuffed Kong to keep them occupied while on their bed during a meal. It is very important that no one reinforces a dog’s begging, even once, or else it will be harder and harder to teach them otherwise. Practiced behaviors get reinforced, and reinforced behaviors get repeated – good or bad!

Johnnie is only going to continue to improve, so I’ll keep you updated on her progress! Week two at the Foster Dog Alliance class had me beaming at how much she improved over last week, but also brought up new challenges for us – so stay tuned! I’m sure we’ll have a lot to report over the next few weeks.

To adopt your very own star student Johnnie Cash, email peacelovefoster@gmail.com.